Despite the efforts of producers, as well as regulators to help protect people from getting sick from foodborne pathogens, a good bulk of the responsibility for food safety may ultimately rest in the hands of the consumers, according to a new book from two award-winning journalists.

Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown contend in “Eating Dangerously: Why the Government Can’t Keep Your Food Safe… and How You Can,” that consumers can take a larger role in protecting their own health, especially as our food system is full potential safety issues from farm to kitchen. Booth and Brown — who were on investigative reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes while at The Denver Post in 2013 — focus on recent stories of foodborne illness to make the case that E. coli, listeria, salmonella and other pathogens all bring their own challenges throughout the food system.

Booth recently answered questions from Meatingplace about the state of the effort to keep food safe as well as what steps can be taken to prevent people from getting sick.

Is there a common thread in the stories featured in “Eating Dangerously” that food producers, regulators and even the public should be taught to recognize?

The common thread is that there's more to be done. We can't just throw up our hands and say "pathogens happen." We began our investigative journalism after the 33 cantaloupe deaths in 2011 because journalists believe most things don't happen randomly — yes, there's a pathogen in a farm field that can't be eradicated, but there are systemic reasons those pathogens ended up in the food supply, and they could have been prevented without busting the bank. So, as Congress has said, we still have a lot of work to do overhauling third-party audit systems so that they are accountable, based on common standards and then followed up on. We need a full-fledged public debate on robust funding for the Food Safety Modernization Act. What good are all the rules being written — which are years late, by the way — if there is no money for boots on the ground to enforce them?

 

 

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What are some of the top suggestions you offer readers with regard to protecting themselves from issues that endanger consumer health?

Learn to love a meat thermometer. Take kitchen sanitizing seriously. Seek out groceries where the grower or the packer or the grocery chain has taken extra pains to make things safe, such as Omaha Steaks irradiating its ground beef, or Costco requiring more of its produce suppliers, or Cargill trying new pathogen-busting techniques in ground poultry.

What were the most surprising findings with regard to protecting meat — beef, poultry and pork, in particular — from a production, storage and retail angle?

As Pew and others have recently pointed out, the time seems ripe for consumer advocates to turn from past E. coli worries to making similar changes in handling salmonella. Why do we allow chicken to be sold with salmonella and other pathogens? Why aren't there clear standards of testing and rejecting poultry? Why do other nations move ahead with vaccinating their flocks, but we don't?

What would you consider the most important lesson with regard to food safety that our readers still may need to learn?

We're disconnected from our farming and ranching ancestry, and so many of us assume everything gets tested before we eat it. It doesn't. There's still huge responsibility on the consumer, as there should be, and there are some simple techniques that boost your chances of avoiding illness.

What are some of the challenges faced by those in the business of producing “organic” proteins in terms of maintaining or improving food safety?

Consumer advocates are not your enemy. And you can be proactive about educating consumers on new techniques they are suspicious of. Find a way to market irradiation of pathogens as a positive safety step. Accept the idea that consumer want GMOs labeled, and figure out a way to do it that increases confidence in the food chain.

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